Our film coverage sometimes veers outside the typical “nerd” spectrum, and 1917 stands perilously on the edge of relevance to Ars Technica. Anyone who reads our coverage of military tech and the history of war might be surprised to read that, given how 1917 revolves around the German occupation of northern France during World War I.
But 1917 (out now nationwide, after a Christmas launch in select US cities) doesn’t make our list for its accurate wartime depiction. Sobering and brutal though it may be, it’s more of an abstraction than a historical reproduction. Instead of major historical beats and accurate colonel-by-colonel retellings, its story is an interpretation of WWI stories that director/co-writer Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) heard from his veteran grandfather as a child.
Even so, 1917 makes our list because its “one unbroken shot” gimmick is a technological achievement, and it unlocks Mendes’ ability to tell a different kind of WWI story than we’ve ever seen in theaters.
Alberich with a twist
The film’s first scene revolves around two British soldiers receiving orders to march through supposedly occupied German territory and deliver a message to a nearby regiment. In the film, the Brits think the Germans are retreating to a specific point, the Hindenburg Line, and have thus sent a regiment to strike. In real-life history, this is exactly what the Germans did, and this defensive maneuver is known as Operation Alberich.
But 1917 changes the WWI story ever so slightly. In at least one position, the Germans have only partially retreated and are hiding out, primed to attack anyone who takes the “retreat” bait. Two messengers have until dawn to alert the British general in charge of the nearby regiment. If they fail, thousands of their countrymen will die.
The tension begins with Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay) following orders to crawl and march through open fields, despite pretty much everyone telling them not to. Germans shot at us two days ago, the duo is told. Mendes and his crew have already established the “unbroken camera shot” gimmick at this point, as the young men march through the trench against the flow of other soldiers to reach a point where they can scale the trench and move ahead. Even before reaching open ground, we see events through a cleverly situated camera hovering far enough from the duo to place bumping, colliding soldiers at the camera’s “lens” without breaking the dolly’s slowly moving momentum.
But it’s when the duo scales the walls that the scale of this no-cuts camerawork becomes apparent. A first-time viewer will likely shudder and clench their armrests thanks to the dramatic tension of wondering whether our guys will indeed be attacked by hidden Germans. But the stuff that had my jaw dropping was how the camera crew hovered and floated around the adventuring duo without betraying their filmmaking presence. No shadows from cameras, boom mics, or other gear. No fresh filmmakers’ boots in the nearby mud. No disturbance of the horrors of war that have been scattered around the film’s battlefield (which range from dead horses, to much, much worse).
It’s one thing to compliment Chapman and MacKay’s efforts in these unbroken shots. The film reimagines the old phrase “theater of war,” as the actors must complete strenuous and agonizing sequences without breaking to remember dialogue or change positions between diving, crawling, marching, and climbing. But it’s a whole ‘nother to watch Mendes and crew dance around the leads. At one moment, the camera is disturbingly tight on one actor’s anguish or horror; within seconds, it has spun to reveal the other actor’s movement and staging while highlighting how much ground the British soldiers must cover to succeed.
Dialogue in service of cinematography
The action in 1917 takes a few organic breaks to let hours of time pass, but the film is mostly careful with its mid-action “breaks” to allow cuts and resets. A tree branch passes in the foreground here. A crowd of soldiers obscures the view there. Compared to modern “one unbroken shot” fare like Birdman, 1917 has a much nimbler blink-and-you’ll-miss-it approach to hiding its filmmaking pauses.
What’s more, its longest 10- and 15-minute stretches relish their lack of breaks. Because these moments stretch on for so long, viewers will likely feel like they’re truly following insane orders alongside a single comrade. Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful) top this tension sundae with a delectable cherry of heartfelt-yet-brisk dialogue between and during these sequences. One remarkable example comes when our guys happen upon a formation of trees. Corporal Blake remarks on the trees with just enough detail and flourish to get a mild rebuke from his comrade.
How does Blake know so much about these trees, Schofield quips? His mum, Blake meekly responds. A brief-yet-sweet anecdote follows as the camera slows down for this breathing moment.
Every dialogue beat—the brief motorcade with other teenage soldiers, the encounter with a terrified hiding resident, a pivotal exchange of battle intel—comes off as believable. The script achieves a delicate balance between clarity and emotion, and it usually functions to offer breaks and pauses between dramatic, unbroken action sequences.
In every way imaginable, then, Mendes’ film makes its cameras the star, because everything else that happens is in service of these dramatically staged sequences. We’ve seen other dramatic war films win out by way of cinematography, particularly Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But there’s a different touch to 1917. In interviews, Mendes has remarked on a lack of modern stories about the scrambling-and-frenetic nature of WWI, about military forces making things up as they go. Without giving too much away, I will say that this film’s focus on the strain and grief of its few tightly zoomed characters is entirely in service to Mendes’ stated filmmaking mission.
The resulting film is one of the most sobering works about war that has ever reached the silver screen. If I merely described the film’s plot, I would struggle to recommend 1917; it’s a hard watch, and its optimism is only lightly sprinkled amongst WWI’s chaos. But as a filmmaking achievement, 1917 is an unmissable document of the human condition amidst the realities of war.